An early morning family excursion for breakfast at Edinburgh Zoo
By our family reviewer – Freda O’Byrne.
7.30 on Friday morning found my son and I welcomed through the gates of Edinburgh Zoo by Graham Catlow, Animal Project Design Officer. The reason we were there so early in the day was because we had answered the ‘early bird’ call to join a guided tour before the park opened to the general public.
The tour started with a stroll past the Chilean Flamingoes and the astonishingly coloured Scarlet Ibis, towards the Budongo Trail. This is a specialised chimpanzee enclosure which incorporates three cutting edge living pods and an extensive outdoor climbing frame offering its inhabitants lots of space for exploration.
As we stood and watched the somewhat startled inhabitants – “they are surprised to see visitors so early” – Graham told us the story of the development of the centre and its links to the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS) in the Budongo Forest in Uganda, how it offers an unprecedented living space for the primates, a world class visitor experience, and a scientific research facility for students of St Andrews University to study chimpanzee behaviour. It was stressed that the animals were offered the opportunity to engage with the students and take part in research activities but were free to decline if they so wished, they were never forced to take part nor constrained against their will.
He also described how they built a community of monkeys to inhabit the Trail by bringing together different social groups from Edinburgh and from Holland and building the group slowly over time, making sure that the dominant males had time to get to know each other and above all that all animals were kept safe during the process.
Within a few moments of this conversation beginning were were transformed from sleepy eyed (at least in my case) visitors looking at animals to a group that was being willingly educated about the complex social, cultural and environmental issues that are intrinsic to good conservation practice. We learnt that conservation was not just about breeding programmes within zoos but was also about zoo staff going out and working with different projects around the globe. For example the Budongo Trail was named after the BCFS conservation project in Uganda which is managed and funded by the RZSS and staffed by local people.
And it is this immersive detail that makes this early morning guided tour so special. We learnt about modern day animal conservation through the life stories of individual rare and endangered animals, about conservation and research partnerships with other projects in Europe and further afield, about collaborative breeding and environmental conservation projects in Africa and South America that the RZSS funded, about a data exchange programmes with the USA – the list went on and on.
Over the next hour and a half we met a Sumatran Tiger, the delightful Sun Bear brothers from Cambodia, sleepily dignified Wombats, the extremely endangered Lion Tamarind monkey, the Grey Legged Douroucouli or Night Monkey, the powerful Wolverines and the hugely entertaining Penguins who were queuing in an orderly fashion to be fed. Graham’s calm, passionate exposition of the painstaking work of the zoo and its staff to protect these creatures which often took years to complete or even see a result held us all engrossed for the entire tour.
We finished our morning in the Mansion House where we were invited to partake of bacon or egg morning rolls, hot tea and coffee and fruit juices with Edinburgh Zoo staff. After the tour we were encouraged to linger on and spend as much of the rest of the day visiting the zoo as we wished.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking start to our day – and my son’s verdict?
“One of the best things so far in the Science Festival – worth getting up for!”